Sunday, July 29, 2007

Thomas Hardy – ‘The Woodlanders’

It must be ten years or more since I read a Thomas Hardy book. Borrowing from my mother’s usually reliable bookshelves I was disappointed by Far From the Madding Crowd and Tess of the D’Urbervilles in turn, and decided to leave it at that. They didn’t fit in to the idea of the Victorian novel as I understood it – and I thought I did understand it then, on the basis of a Dickens and an Eliot or two. Hardy has little in common with the former, you’d think, and I felt that he fell ridiculously short of the latter on what was quite similar territory. George Eliot always knows what’s what, can impress simple truths about human behaviour more directly than any author I can think of. By comparison, Hardy is as confused as hell, and it is only on this latest reading that I’ve begun to think that this is not a shortcoming. In Middlemarch, for example, Dorothea makes the wrong marital choice, pays the consequences, and the book is long and big enough to encompass her gradual shift towards choosing the man she should have picked in the first place. In The Woodlanders, Grace Melbury makes the right then the wrong choice in prospect, marries the wrong one, and then, things begin to get complicated. Not so much a love triangle as a love pentagon ensues. A loves B who loves C who loves B or D depending on whether D loves C or E at the time. It’s a plot which defies any straightforward moral interpretation because what (or who) is right in one chapter becomes wrong in another: everything is contingent.

Edred Fitzpiers, the doctor who impresses Grace and her father with his cosmopolitan ways (her) and his family history (him), is at first so much of an out-and-out baddie that I pictured him as Alan Rickman might play the part. His courtship of Grace is based upon the power his presence has over her: it is awe she feels, not affection. There is the suspicion, too, that he is after her father’s money; he is also lazy – the late nights spent studying which impress Grace so are scattershot, something to keep his mind off what he ought to be doing, which is building up his practice. And then there is Suke Damson, voluptuous and simple, whom Grace spies emerging from his house early one morning after she has become engaged to him. He explains this away – she had a tooth-ache – but the reader is not intended to believe it. More serious than this minor affair is Fitzpiers’ attachment to Mrs Charmond, owner of Hintock House, which begins nearly as soon as he is back from his honeymoon. The man is incorrigible, clearly. And yet he does redeem himself: he is not really bad (how confused his negative qualities are – ambitious and lazy), because he is not really heartless, just predisposed to fall for more than one woman at once. After he has sown his seeds in a profligate early life, his ego cracks and he calms down, becoming far more likable. I expect this is true of a lot of people.

Other characters are just as morally complex, though none show so dramatic a change: Mr Melbury dithers between what is right and what is advantageous for his daughter; Grace does this herself, lacking the passion to over-ride convention (she has ‘more of Artemis than if Aphrodite in her constitution’ (p. 381)). The two characters who are completely constant are unfortunate that their feelings are not for each other: Marty South, and Giles Winterbourne. These two will live their whole lives in Little Hintock, a tiny place in which it is no surprise that everyone with a scrap of education feels constrained. But they do not, finding infinite interest in nature:

The countryman who is obliged to judge the time of day from change in external nature sees a thousand successive tints and traits in the landscape which are never discerned by him who hears the regular chime of a clock, because they are never in request. (p. 155)

If there is a value judgement here, it is that nature is more reliable than people, and that the people who are closest to it are as reliable as people are likely to get. The pair are far from happy though, so in a sense this is just another dead end.

Having said that Hardy is not like Dickens, I immediately remembered the passage in Martin Chuzzlewit in which the rain pours down as Jonas goes about his sordid little murder. There is a rain storm at the low point of this novel too, more subtly used, but similar in effect:

Sometimes a bough from an adjoining tree was swayed so low as to smite the roof in the manner of a gigantic hand smiting the mouth of an adversary, to be followed by a trickle of rain, as blood from the wound. (p. 374)

What an absolutely stunning description of a storm! You feel yourself to be in the one-room dwelling with Grace as you read it, looking out, feeling the room shake with the impact of the branch, watching the water it releases. And you feel yourself to be outside too, with Giles in the sorry state he’s in, reeling from the storm, the adversary with the bloody mouth.

An earlier and a happier use of melodrama comes at the beginning of the book, in which a mysterious figure pays Marty South a visit in the middle of the night and asks to buy her hair. It’s a brilliant set piece, Dickensian in its intention to impress and intrigue from the outset, and humourously undercut by the prosaic explanation for it all (the mysterious figure is a barber, of course, who wants her hair to make a wig – again, it is easy to imagine Dickens poking fun at this fellow). Who but Hardy, though, could twist this around again and have the wig cause a murder? Every big event in his careful plot is explained in terms of the little things which caused it, and which well might not have done. At times this gives the authorial voice a hint of sadism: unlike Richard Yates, who writes about impossibilities, Hardy gives us missed possibilities. Both like to twist the knife in their own way.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Music Stands and Cardigans

The last CD I bought in Fopp before it closed was Taken By Trees’ Open Field, on the strength of a Plan B piece and the lovely sounds on her / their website. I’ve never heard The Concretes. It’s nice, it’s drawing me in gradually. The same tune gets used quite a lot, but I’m not holding that against it for the moment. Certain voices fit certain tunes, after all. The whole of the blues has only one. Smack in the middle of the record is a song that hardly belongs there at all, with a different tune: ‘Lost and Found’, by Camera Obscura’s Tracyanne Campbell. It’s so catchy it overshadows the surrounding delicate mood pieces. It’s muted, too, in its own way, but lighter on its feet, regretful without forgetting to check what impression the regret is making. Then just past the chorus it does what pop does best, slipping from arch to abandon as Victoria sings, ‘Am I wild wild wild wild wild?’, and by that stage you’ve really no choice but to admit that you’re in the presence of something quite special.

‘Damn,’ I thought, faced with this non-choice. Because I’ve avoided Camera Obscura for years, and here they were being brilliant by proxy. How could this be? Weren’t they that band with the music stands and the cardigans who kicked off their set with something so close to ‘Dog on Wheels’ that Chris and I walked out within 20 seconds, narrowly missing our 10 second personal best (inspired by Cosmic Rough Riders around about the same time)? Aren’t they pretenders to Belle and Sebastian’s dippy drippiness, picking up on the unintentional non-style rather than the subversive edge and the joyous anti-blues pop of it all? The Field Mice to Belle and Sebastian’s Heavenly?*

Apparently not. It will have been said all over the place in things I haven’t read, of course (one glimpses lists, thinks smugly, ‘I don’t know about this lot, but that is definitely wrong. Music stands, you know.’), but Let’s Get Out Of This Country is completely brilliant. Tunes fall over themselves, big pop rushes abound at just the right places (the beginning, between the beginning and the middle, the middle, and most raucously between the middle and the end, naturally), scarcely out-doing what would once have been termed the ballads, but these are sweet and introverted rather than plaintive and epic, for all their plastic production. Tracyanne hovers distractedly over her songs just as Stuart Murdoch used to do (he’s more focussed these days, for better or worse), but she’s a far moodier presence, so you get this downward lyrical pull fighting against the efficient momentum of the music (the chirpiest song here is called ‘I Need All The Friends I Can Get’). The effect is almost like fighting back tears. The ‘interesting’ records I’ve been listening to this week (Basil Kirchin’s Quantum, ZNR’s Barricade 3) don’t stand a chance against an onslaught like this. Better leave them to another time.

I should have learned this lesson long ago. Having always preferred Primal Scream’s Sonic Flower Groove to anything The Byrds did and, once I got over my outrage at The Sundays’ Reading, Writing and Artithmetic (which Bobby Gillespie famously hated) being sonically nothing more than ten variations on The Smiths’ ‘Cemetry Gates’, having taken it to my heart like few other records. The weaker argument can always defeat the stronger, when arguing is beside the point, and when it has tunes like these.

*This is unfair, and I know it’s unfair. I just don’t like The Field Mice very much.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Christopher Isherwood – ‘Prater Violet’

Christopher Isherwood’s name seems to have cropped up a lot this year, here and there. I don’t remember hearing it before, but this is often the way with names: they embed themselves and you become more alert to them. He featured in BBC 4’s programme on W. H. Auden (from what I remember the two were lovers in New York), and John Boorman mentioned Prater Violet in Memoirs of a Suburban Boy as being the last word on director / writer / studio relations. And so here we are. With a slim volume from 1946 which recounts fairly straightforwardly the making of a fictional film, Prater Violet (based, according to Wikipedia, on the real film The Little Friend) by a real-life screenwriter (Isherwood) and a fictional director, Friedrich Bergmann (based on Berthold Viertel). I have no idea how closely the fiction matches the fact, but the book’s events certainly seems real enough.

There is a story arc of sorts, but the form here is more chronicle than fiction. Isherwood finds himself working on the film without having sought the job (he pretends briefly to his mother and brother that he’s playing hard to get, and to himself that ‘chapter eleven’ of whatever he was working on when it came up has a higher claim on his time); its director is scarcely more enamoured of it, and neither, particularly, are the money / studio men Chatsworth and Ashmeade. The only clue to the production’s existence is Chatsworth’s flattering view of himself: ‘“I bet I know what Isherwood’s thinking,” he told Bergmann. “He’s right, too, blast him. I quite admit to it. I’m a bloody intellectual snob.”’ (p. 24) Isherwood at this point is not thinking of Chatsworth at all – he sees him merely as a suit who might be good for a few months’ salary – but of Bergmann, who fascinates him. Chatsworth is a snob in the worst sense: he is concerned that people see him as an intellectual film maker, without being at all interested in the content of the films his studio makes. He wants the veneer of an intellectual, being unaware that the one thing an intellectual will always lack is a veneer.

This is largely unimportant though, and Prater Violet shows how a group almost entirely at cross-purposes with one another can be pretty effective at turning out a film. Chatsworth’s real talent is management: he can bring people together, infusing them with a sense of purpose and that all-important salary. He can also reel them in when they get out of hand. In return the creative types (Bergmann and Isherwood) will flatter his sense of cultural elitism without believing in it for a moment themselves. They will struggle – as they perceive it – against the philistine studio mechanism to write something which is good, hoping to smuggle Art into the cinema. Once the wheels are in motion, all being well, this happens:

‘Do you know what film is?’ Bergmann cupped his hands, lovingly, as if around an exquisite flower: ‘The film is an infernal machine. Once it is ignited and set in motion it revolves with an enormous dynamism. It cannot pause. It cannot apologize. It cannot retract anything. It cannot wait for you to understand it. It simply ripens to its inevitable explosion.’ (p. 33)

In this particular case, there is a major wobble in the dynamism of the infernal machine, when Bergmann, frightened for his family back home in Vienna (there is some Nazi-related violence reported in the papers mid-shoot), loses interest in the film he is making, and it is then that Chatsworth comes into his own, pretending to be about to give Prater Violet to a different director (the efficient but Art-less Eddie Kennedy) in order to have Bergmann fight to remain in control. The loathsome journalist Patterson is a willing pawn in this. Bergmann comes through, and comes into his own during the re-shoots which follow. No-one but a Chatsworth can get a film project underway, and no-one but a Bergmann can finish it off.

The last three or four pages of the book contain a remarkable shift, from the constant now! now! now! of film production, to a longer view. Isherwood reflects on his relationship with the director:

We had written each other’s parts, Christopher’s Friedrich, Friedrich’s Christopher, and we had to go on playing them, as long as we were together. The dialogue was crude, the costumes and make-up were more absurd, more of a caricature, than anything in Prater Violet: mother’s boy, the comic foreigner with the funny accent. (p. 126)

He also muses on what he has kept hidden from Bergmann over the course of their brief and intense association: his love life. More than anything else it is this passage which makes the book feel more like a diary than a novel. The main subject of the book is Bergmann, and what have Isherwood’s weekends to do with him? They relate to nothing that has gone before. And yet it would have been a great shame not to have been able to read:

It seemed to me that I had always done what people recommended. You were born: it was like entering a restaurant. The waiter came forward with a lot of suggestions. You said: ‘What do you advise?’ And you ate it, and you supposed you liked it, because it was expensive, or out of season, or had been a favourite of King Edward the Seventh. The waiter had recommended teddy bears, football, cigarettes, motor-bikes, whisky, Bach, poker, the culture of classical Greece. Above all, he had recommended Love: a very strange dish. (p. 123)

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Richard Yates – ‘Revolutionary Road’

She was calm and quiet now with knowing what she had always known, what neither her parents nor Aunt Claire nor Frank nor anyone else had ever had to teach her: that if you wanted to do something absolutely honest, something true, it always turned out to be a thing that had to be done alone. (p. 311)

This is a book about impossibility. How it’s impossible to live either with other people or without them, how personal integrity is impossible to maintain under almost all circumstances, how compromise will get you in the end. The lives it describes are a mess, taken together or taken alone. The opening chapters describe a play (The Petrified Forest) put on by a group of culturally aspirational inhabitants of a middle class suburb which keenly feels its inferiority to neighbouring New York, and which attempts (impossibly) to create an oasis of intellectual interest in the midst of its own mediocrity. Of course it over-reaches itself, even as it performs this bad play (at least, the narrator insinuates that it is bad – the film version, with Leslie Howard and Humphrey Bogart, is actually pretty great). Only one of the group – April Wheeler – can act, and although this is enough to pull the others through a creditable dress rehearsal, it all falls apart in front of an audience. All through the run-up to the performance, April’s husband Frank has been imagining the congratulations he will modestly shrug off on her behalf, backstage afterwards. He doesn’t know how to cope with such an obvious failure, and neither does she. False smiles become a grim fixture as they wish themselves elsewhere, and once they are alone, they have a huge fight. At this point I was thinking: OK, beautiful descriptions, I’m genuinely embarrassed on behalf of these people, but there is nothing positive here at all. Every novel needs its ray of hope, surely? If these are just awful people, why am I reading about them?

Things, as they pan out, aren’t quite that simple. But it’s a close thing. The happiest character here is Mrs Givings, more or less the epitome of the drab suburbia by which the others feel trapped. She is a freelance real estate agent, and a disinterested wife. She is interested, like a one-woman lifestyle TV show, in appearances: of houses and gardens first, because people are so difficult; but where social interaction is necessary, she would have it free of interest in order to have it free of tension. Her husband frequently switches off his hearing aid when she gets talking, because what she says is of no consequence: she talks not to communicate the content of what she is saying, but instead a sense that all is well because all is normal. Her false smile is habitual, not just an emergency device as it is with the Wheelers – and yet her busy life, filled with selling houses and DIY, does make her happy.

John, Mrs Givings’ son, is perhaps the reason for her blandness: he is mentally ill, spending most of his time in hospital, but allowed out on Sunday afternoons to visit the Wheelers, to act as their conscience. Yates combines this didactic purpose with his customary striking realism:

Most of the tables were occupied, but there was very little sound of conversation. At the table nearest the door a young Negro couple sat holding hands, and it wasn’t easy to identify the man as the patient until you noticed that his other hand was holding the chromium leg of the table in a yellow-knuckled grip of desperation, as if it were the rail of a heaving ship. Farther away, and old woman was combing the tangled hair of her son, whose age could have been anything between twenty-five and forty. (p.282)

The didactic part reminded me a little of Dickens’ Barnaby Rudge: Barnaby being also a few shillings short, and likewise used to go to places that saner characters wouldn’t. It’s useful to have a someone take characters to task about the motives for their actions, especially when they’re as convoluted and volatile as those behind the Wheelers’ intention to go to Paris to live. It takes somebody with no inhibitions to get inside the heads of such slight acquaintances, to so wholeheartedly concur with their rejection of the known for the unknown, and, when their unrealistic fantasy is brought down by April’s pregnancy, to say to them: ‘Money’s always a good reason […]. But it’s hardly ever the real reason.’ (p. 286). Yates is even more like Dickens when he spells out the real reason, at the beginning of part three, in a two-page direct address which starts off: ‘Our ability to measure and apportion time affords an almost endless source of comfort.’ (p. 213). While the Wheelers are able to live in a not-too-distant, glamorous future, they can be happy, but when they are in the present tense it just doesn’t happen for them. Frank is beset by the materialistic and arrogant belief that he should have been someone important, without really having had to try (the closer the opportunity to try comes, the more he shies away from it); April, whom one might have expected to harbour similar retrospective ambitions about her failed career as an actress, is just lost, an empty shell. The way her love for Frank drops away when he begins to be shown up for the emotional coward he is, is devastating. They’re OK for the dress rehearsal, but it all falls apart at the performance.

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